Robert Letham, Finance Director at People’s Postcode Lottery talks to iMultiply about developing a diverse career in finance, building for the future of a rapidly growing business and taking your time when it comes to making key career decisions.
Sitting down with Robert at People’s Postcode Lottery’s vibrant Edinburgh offices; his energy, drive and passion for the innovative culture and the future of this young, successful social enterprise is palpable:
You have had quite a diverse career, can you tell us about your journey to becoming Finance Director at People’s Postcode Lottery?
I began my career training at PwC in Newcastle, working in audit and risk assurance across a broad range of client sizes and sectors; from multinationals to SMEs and retail to local government. Having studied at the University of Edinburgh, I transferred within PwC to make the move back to Edinburgh and after qualifying I left PwC to join Sun Microsystems.
The role at Sun Microsystems gave me the opportunity to apply the audit and statutory reporting skills I had learned at PwC, whilst getting to know how a business really worked. I worked on operational reporting, board reports and improving financial controls and systems. Following the merger with Oracle, I got to experience systems migrations and a very different corporate culture.
Due to the finance function being moved to Ireland and India in Oracle I then decided to take the opportunity to go travelling. Whilst abroad, I worked as a diver in Africa for a marine conservation charity and then in Brisbane as a consultant for a healthcare organisation, providing risk assessment advice and supporting the new CFO as he bedded in. The flexibility of consultancy work suited me at the time and I enjoyed working within a privately-owned business for the first time.
Returning to Edinburgh from abroad for lifestyle and family reasons was an easy transition as a CA. I decided not to rush into a potentially long-term career decision and worked as a contractor for Lloyds Bank as part of a team setting up a new department. I knew that financial services was not going to be the right cultural fit for me long-term but wanted to get a feel for the Edinburgh market and to wait for the right opportunity.
That opportunity arose when I met the CFO of IndigoVision. Becoming Group Financial Controller for a dynamic AIM listed technology firm with an international reach enabled me to really grow. I had a great relationship with the CFO and there was so much going on. With 90% of the sales force overseas and the company headquartered in Edinburgh, this was a real operational challenge. AIM regulatory reporting was new to me, as was accounting for international subsidiaries, with all the tax and transfer pricing issues that came with that. Commercially, we had to combat the market reality that competitors had caught up with the pioneering technology which IndigoVision originally engineered and adapt our focus accordingly. I definitely learnt a lot.
After three years at Indigo, I felt ready to make the step up to FD but I was conscious my experience meant picking the right company was essential. As soon as I met the CEO at People’s Postcode Lottery for an initial coffee, I was captivated by the way the organisation does business and was excited by the growth potential. I liked the young ethos of the company and decided to join.
What are the challenges and rewards of your role as a Finance Director?
I’ve never worked for an organisation which blends fundraising for charities with running a commercial business and where a competitive edge ultimately impacts how much goes to good causes. Our mission has been the same since the beginning, to raise funds for good causes and raise awareness of their work. This means that we attract talent which really believes in what they are doing and as a result are very engaged – this culture is important and is what makes People’s Postcode Lottery a very rewarding place to work.
One of the challenges of a rapidly growing company is managing that growth and the expectation that as the workload increases you can keep bringing in more headcount – we’ve climbed to over 300 team members and I’m comfortable we’ve done so in a considered way. Since before I joined we’ve had to work within some restrictive legislation around the current fundraising limits of society lotteries and after working with the government for a long time we’re hopeful we’ll soon see some changes to legislation which will positively impact the rate at which we can grow and the level at which we can operate. Ultimately, meaning we can achieve even more for charities and good causes.
We’ve come a long way from the start-up mentality. We still work hard to maintain that culture of innovation but we have to be aware that as one of the largest society lotteries in the UK market we need to demonstrate excellence and lead by example.
What are the skills which have stood you in good stead as a Finance Director of a scaling-up business?
My grounding in systems and processes acquired at PwC and Oracle, along with the understanding of how best to apply and improve systems in different sized organisations has proven invaluable.
This understanding was particularly useful in my first year at People’s Postcode Lottery when my role was more operational and I was focusing on balance sheets and processes. Putting in place systems and checks was crucial as the business matured and was quite a change for the team that had been here since the very beginning. It was great that the positive culture of People’s Postcode Lottery extended to embracing this change and the need for us to be proactive in preparing for even more growth in the future.
My time has been freed-up considerably from an operational point of view since our Financial Controller joined. I now enjoy being involved in planning the short and long-term strategy of the business, working closely with the Managing Directors and the heads of all other departments. Being at the leadership table when questions are being asked about where we are going next and how best to grow, is fantastic.
What have been the main motivations behind your changes in role throughout your career?
I’ve always had a rough idea that I wanted to be a Finance Director or CFO. I didn’t really strategically base my career moves around this objective though. I generally tried to look for opportunities where 50% of the role I could apply my existing skills and 50% of the role was knowledge or skills I wanted to develop.
What advice would you give to a newly qualified accountant?
Don’t worry about your first career move too much. If you want to try something a bit different then go for it, you have nothing to lose and as a CA, doors will always be open when or if you decide to come back.
It’s worth thinking about the type of organisation and culture you’re interested in joining and whether a company or accountancy firm will be able to support your development, this often also comes down to the line manager you meet at interview. Your breadth of exposure to a range of skills and different sizes or types of organisation are also worth thinking about.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
I’ve been at People’s Postcode for about three years now and so much has changed during that time. I’m very proud of everything that we have achieved but there is so much more that we can do. To date, People’s Postcode has raised over £330 million for 4,000 charities and in five years’ time I would love to be able to say that this total stands at over £1 billion.
If you are looking to take the next step in your finance career, please contact John Gilbertson, iMultiply Director on 0131 603 4474 or firstname.lastname@example.org for a confidential discussion.